3 weeks, 4 countries, 7 boat rides, 1200km cycled.
There have been good days and bad days, the best days and worst ones. At times it’s been tough and tiring, and yes there have even been tears. At times it’s been thrilling and exciting, and I’ve thought I must be the luckiest person alive. All times equally memorable in their own right….
Part 2 – A Big Tour in a little Country
The start of the tour began, not with cycling, but with a boat trip across the Rio Geba – we were crammed into a small motorised boat with about 150 other people and their various goods. Not usually very safety-conscious, I was this time thankful for and actually used the life-jacket that was handed to me. It seemed especially prudent considering every other passenger was wearing one too. I wouldn’t be surprised if these boats up-turn occasionally mid-crossing with fatal consequences.
We safely made it to Enxude on the other side and set off cycling immediately when we were asked for money for transporting the bikes – just a scam to try and get money from the white tourists, since no locals were asked for any Francs.
Having left Bissau, we had left behind the tarmac and so progress was slower on the dusty tracks that pass as roads throughout the rest of the country. Moving south, with the midday sun beating down on our backs and the humidity of the tropical forests, we sweated our way towards Jemberem. The bright blue sky, vivid orange earth roads and saturated greens of the palms, grasses and dense forest we passed through tired the eyes with the intensity of the colours – or perhaps it was partly due to the dust that gets deposited everywhere.
We passed the animal corridor, the sign implying this is used by elephants although they departed this region a long time ago. We did spot a chimpanzee falling out of one of the taller palm trees though. To our surprise, a tarmac road appeared, seemingly from nowhere – but the pot-holes made progress even slower than the dirt tracks – and then more surprisingly, we came to crossroads. Strange – there were no crossroads marked on the map – where did this smooth, uncharted road go? The answer – not very far! For this neatly laid tarmac was a disused airstrip. When the best laid road for miles isn’t even a road, you have to wonder at the country’s priorities.
We continued on to the Rio Cumbija, where we employed the help of a local who slowly but surely paddled us with proficiency in a pirogue for an hour to get to the track on the other side of the river so we could continue the journey. Cycling on the overgrown footpaths between the villages, we arrived in Jemberem in time for lunch. Lunch however took three hours to arrive and so should really be called dinner. We devoured the fish and rice in much less time. It was tasty, but not really worth the wait and certainly not the chicken and chips we’d asked for!
It is amazing just how many times I have been asked what I would like to eat, only for something totally different to be served…. The menu may suggest that you can get a chicken dish, so you ask for chicken and you may just get chicken but will just as likely get some indeterminable meat or fish. Of course if you want chips with the ‘chicken’ dish you have to ask for chips which the waiter will duly note. But perhaps they don’t have chips so the ‘chef’ will fill you plate with an ‘alternative’. The very same restaurant may have a rice dish, but it would never occur that you could serve rice from the rice dish with the ‘chicken’ you’ve ordered, so when a plate covered mainly with peas arrives there is little to do but sigh and ask for something to eat the delectable dish with.
Food during the last couple of weeks has been somewhat repetitive and breakfast and lunch has tended to be mayonnaise sandwiches – egg mayo, onion mayo, spicy mayo or just plain mayo. So perhaps you can guess what I had for my Christmas dinner feast! I am as sick of mayo sandwiches as I usually am of turkey by the time it comes round to the Christmas dinner on the 25th December. And that is where the resemblances to the usual Christmas affair end.
After the disappointment of Jemberem, where we’d planned to spend the afternoon walking through the forest trails in search of wildlife rather than idly waiting for food, we cycled a short distance and set up camp in the forest undergrowth.
As I pushed my bike back onto the road the following morning, I trod on the end of a branch which flipped up and hit the back of my leg. Ouch. But the pain was a strange lingering pain which increased every time I took a step. I looked down, expecting to see a graze, maybe some blood, but was somewhat horrified when out of my calf was an insect body squirming and writhing with legs helplessly wriggling mid-air. Gross. And get that think out of me! Fortunately Lars came to the rescue of my call of ‘What the F*#k is that?!’ (surprisingly without a camera to document the incident) and removed the wriggling legs. Now I had just half an insect embedded in my leg. With some nifty tweezer surgery, the head half was successfully abstracted and while Lars tried to identify the insect, I once again set about cleaning up the blood that was slowly trickling down my leg. Turns out it was a termite. When I woke up that morning, I can’t say I ever expected to have a termite catapulted into my leg. But I suppose that’s nothing compared to the shock the termite had of being propelled head-first into a human leg only to be decapitated shortly after.
Any Which Way… But Lost
We finally left the main roads behind shortly after Quebo, and had one of the best day’s biking of the trip, towards little-visited Boe. This is what back home would be called off-road biking. The tracks overgrown and little wider than footpaths that would branch in several directions only to meet again later further along.
At some point after lunch by the ‘road’-side (where we inadvertently scared away some local children just by being there and being white) and filling up water (in a small village where we were treated like celebrities and had to shake the hands of every villager before leaving), I began to wonder whether my earlier theory – that any which way was the right way – was holding true. It seemed like we were going south into the sun but should really be heading east or north-east. At that very moment Lars asks ‘Are we going the right way? We seem to be going south – if we’re not careful we could end up in Guinea-Conakry!’ ‘Same thing was crossing my mind’ – I replied with a laugh and took a look at the GPS which I’d barely used until this point. Err… Yes – that would be Guinea-Conakry we were in. After a short attempt to cross back into the right country across country (down even smaller overgrown paths), we decided it would be prudent to turn around and find the correct path before any armed military on patrol found us.
Perfect End to a Perfect Day
That evening we had a filling meal cooked over a campfire, with the stars and sounds from the bush the only things penetrating the darkness. I suspected I might regret sitting out so late but even so was surprised to see quite so many bites covering my legs the following morning. It was a restless night with unknown sounds disturbing my dreams – we really were in the wild at this point and I wondered if the nearby calls could be wild animals. With one howl, I called out to Lars ‘What the hell was that?’ but his response was one of rhythmic snoring, so I dismissed any danger and tried to go back to sleep.
A Hard Day
The following day was hard for me – I was tired, feeling a little ill and some things were just too much to cope with… so when it came to buying food at a little shop in Che Che before bartering the price to be taken across another river, I truly did despair. The cost of the food 2,300 CFA. I handed over 3,000 CFA. I received back 200 CFA. I waited for the rest of the change…. but the shopkeeper just stared at me. I then politely asked for the rest of the change. The shopkeeper then proceeded to methodically, with pen and paper, go through the cost of every item and add it up. No, I wasn’t disputing the price, just the short-change. But according to him, I had all the change to be expected from the transaction. I explain that 3,000 minus 2,300 is actually 700 and that I need another 500 CFA. No, he was adamant his maths was correct. The lady at the shop overhears the debate arising, says she understands me (thank God) – and with that, takes the 200 CFA from my hand and replaces it with 500 CFA. NO! I sigh. I need 700 CFA – that’s the 200 CFA plus the 500 CFA. I now have the pen and paper in my hand and am slowly repeating the calculation but even this is not helping. They finally agree that the change should be 700 CFA but are convinced they have already given me this change. True, they had, throughout the process given me 700 worth of CFA, but had forgotten that the lady had also taken 200 CFA back off me.
This is all the more farcical considering 700 CFA is roughly equivalent to a pound. In the time it took to resolve this mathematical conundrum, I suspect the insubstantial savings in my bank account would have accrued more money in interest, even at the current shockingly low rates the bank offers!
By the time I made it across the river, I was in serious need of energy and proceeded to eat what I had just bought (devoured much quicker than it had taken to buy).
After a week of hard cycling and camping on the trails, we decided to treat ourselves to a bed in Gabu. Our choice of hotel however, one attached to a discotheque, was unwise. Even the seven beers we each consumed that evening was insufficient to send me to sleep even after the club closed in the wee hours due to the snoring night watchmen laying outside, the baying donkey across the street and the incessant itching of my bite-infested legs. At light, exhausted and red-eyed, we drank coffee, packed up our bikes and hit the road again for Guinea-Conakry (intentionally this time).
The serious military at the Foula-Mori, Guinea border and the uninspiring village that lacked the atmosphere or warm welcome of other border towns I’ve passed through on this trip didn’t bode well for Guinea… but that soon changed.
From the border, we cycled towards the town of Koumbia, along a pleasant yet dusty dirt road, passing small villages of round thatched huts. It was market day in one of these villages and for miles in each direction we passed men, women and children walking or cycling to the market. Everyone seemed to be smartly dressed with not a speck of dirt to be seen (unlike my dust-encrusted bike shorts, orange-tainted panniers and rust-coloured bike) and it amazes me to see how they walk so elegantly and with ease with a large bowl or fruit or vegetables balanced precariously atop their head.
And then into view came the imposing cliff-faces marking our arrival in the Fouta Djalon region.
Our ‘Drogba’ Guide
On arrival in the town of Koumbia, we were greeted by a man in a black ‘Drogba’ football shirt who kindly showed us the best place to eat. He waited outside while we devoured our plate of rice d’arachida (a peanut sauce) and filled up the tupperware container for a further serving for the evening’s dinner. He then guided us through town as we bought supplies and when we asked where the water pump was, he hopped on his bike and took us the few kilometres out of town to the effective Saudi Arabian sponsored pump and then guided us to the right road to send us on our way towards Labe. ‘Drogba’ guide was only too happy to help – when I said he really didn’t need to and that we could surely find our way, he replied with ‘c’est la vie’. And it’s true – this is part of life here. You help others where and how you can. It is encounters with kind people like ‘Drogba’ that ensure I don’t get too cynical while travelling – not everyone sees the white tourist as a source of money to be extorted.
The Fouta Djalon
From Koumbia, the road began winding round and up and down further into the Fouta Djalon hills along increasingly poor roads. The map says one road is dangerous and difficult and the other may be impassable in the rainy season. Fortunately it’s not the rainy season, but the going was still tough. The scenery was lovely, although the views somewhat shielded by the haze brought by the harmattan winds that blow fine Saharan sands through the air at this time of year. Enjoying the scenery is difficult while cycling as the poor roads require all eyes on the floor in order to avoid the potholes, divots, rocks and sand, any of which will result in a crash if your attention momentarily lapses. It was loose gravel and sand that resulted in Lar’s exiting the left side of his bike and it was potholes and huge truck tracks that caused panniers to fall off a number of times.
Christmas Day and we levelled out onto a windswept plateau and fought the headwind into Tianguel-Bori for a coffee-bread-mayo breakfast. The entrance to the town was barred by blue rags roped across the road, which signals a military or police checkpoint. Passports checked, we were allowed to pass into what looked like a Wild-West frontier town with the wind blowing down the wide dusty street lined with low wooden buildings.
Tired in Labe
We finally made it into Labe, the main town in the Fouta Djalon, on Boxing Day after two weeks cycling without a break. The roads had been hard with tired legs towards the end. Apart from the cycling, most of the days are taken up with buying food, filling up with water, finding a suitable camping spot and that’s before you begin to put up the tent and try to wash a little before collecting wood with which to make a fire to cook on. I love all of this, but it does take it’s toll on the body and mind, as does spending 24hours every day with just one other person – a couple of times, tensions frayed when seemingly innocuous situations blew out of proportion.
It truly has been a great couple of weeks, but I think I have learnt a valuable lesson which is – it’s better to have a break after a week of cycling. And by a break, I don’t mean one sleepless night next to a discotheque.
I’ve spent the last four days in Labe, cleaning and fixing everything ready for the ride through the Fouta Djalon into Sierra Leone for Freetown.
I seem to be aching more now having slept in a bed for four nights in a row, than at any other time in the previous month since St. Louis when apart from four other nights, I’ve slept on a deflated thermorest in my tent. So we leave later today and I look forward to a night camping although I’m not sure if my body is fully recovered from the last few week’s exertions so I may be taking another day off very shortly.